For several years, a friend of mine recommended me a particular historical novel. She offered to lend it to me; I never quite took her up on that. I saw it at the used bookstall at the Leeds International Medieval Congress; I was tempted, but resisted. Finally, I found a copy in the British Library’s fantastic new bookshop, and am now busily enjoying it.
The book is Medieval Woman: Village Life in the Middle Ages (formerly published as Down the Common) by Ann Baer, and tells the story of Marion, a carpenter’s wife living in a village in Kent, south-east England, sometime in the late Middle Ages. The book follows an episodic structure: each chapter features an event in the life of the village, one for each month of the year, described from Marion’s point of view. According to the blurb, the novel was based on years of research, which shows itself best in the tiny details of daily life which the author reimagines. This is not a novel about great historical events or changes, but about medieval village life as experienced by an ordinary woman.
How restful it was to be warm, warm all over, to relish the fresh breeze which occasionally stirred the oak leaves above her. How very comfortable it was to be dry, not to have damp shoulders where a child had puked, not to have a wet front where a breast had leaked, not to have wet knees where a baby had pissed, not to have wet thighs where, uncontrollably, blood trickled down … how short and rare in a woman’s life were these dry days.
Medieval Woman, p. 96.
These are the things which have always struck me as the greatest roadblock to writing worthwhile historical fiction. It’s not the great moments of history that are the problem – those will have left records – but the little things of everyday life. How can we be sure that a medieval person would have done this thing in this way, that a particular item had been invented or was in common use at a particular time, and above all that they would have thought in a particular way? And the lower in status a person was, the less likely they are to have left records. I suppose the only way is to read a lot of historical research, and a lot of historical records, and to notice all the things which are implied, the casual references to what people did and said and assumed, even when they are not the focus of what is being recorded.
In another respect, however, the narrative voice was not altogether satisfactory. Baer occasionally comments on what Marion does not think about, and the things which have never occurred to her, and details her thought processes in too objective a manner:
[T]hough she believed that the herb potions made in the village, and drunk with the ritual sing-song words, strengthened the powers of health and weakened those of disease, she did not believe in any cure, nor any physical change that the potion might exert on the diseased body … There was therefore no searching for proof and no drawing of conclusions from evidence, it was just prudent to drink the right potion, to recite the correct incantation …
Medieval Woman, p. 18
Even the novel’s very poignant final words are concerned with what Marion does not consider, with a modern perspective on her struggles which does not occur to her.
The narrator also uses words which Marion herself would never have done:
As to all the girls of her age, to Marion Dick Shepherd with his golden curls and blue eyes had been a cynosure.
Medieval Woman, p. 79
Even if the author has not set out to write in medieval English, or something like it, it breaks the spell somewhat to introduce a word which is very high-register even today. In these ways, the narrative voice steps too far outside of Marion’s viewpoint, comparing her perspective on life with that of a later age. This detracts somewhat from the real strength of the novel, which is the opposite, Baer’s ability to describe precisely which things her heroine has experienced and actually does think about.
The novel begins with a somewhat lengthy list of all the characters: I wondered how on earth I would ever remember all of those people. But in fact I had picked up who most of them were within the first chapter: Baer quickly sketches in the life and relationships of a small village. While characters do not change and develop much in the story, we see how the natural diversity of human character could express itself within a relatively restricted culture.
It was not only contrary to village custom to describe one’s feelings, it was beyond most people’s ability … The conventional phrases did not fit Hilda, as indeed conventional attitudes had never fitted Dick. Marion wondered for the first time whether Hilda’s strange thoughts and unusual words had been what had so attracted Dick to her – for no one ever had thought freckled Hilda pretty – and Marion had a glimpse of unknown bonds made of thoughts and words that could perhaps bind two people together even more tightly than could sexual passion and its resulting children.
Medieval Woman, p. 128.
As in any age, we can see women helping out other women, small children learning about the world, loving families, men who hurt their own families, and people whose hard lives have led them to give up completely. Marion has a loving relationship with her husband Peter, who is a kind father to their little girl, but nevertheless perceives to have a much simpler inner life than her own. The feudal lord and his family are a complex group of characters: they are sometimes cool and distant, are quick to demand the fruits of the villagers’ labours, and sometimes cruel. At other times, we see them using their power to help and organise the villagers, and, though they are raised by status and wealth above their neighbours, their lives and daily concerns are completely bound up in those of the peasants around them: I wonder whether aristocrats of later centuries would have been a part of their communities to such an extent.
The book portrays a way of life that is mostly unchanging, lived by people who have barely travelled beyond their own village, unknowing of the world to an extent to which most of us cannot now comprehend. But Marion and her neighbours are nevertheless linked to the rest of the world by the threads of trade and necessity. A man called Chris Foxcap, perhaps a Traveller, visits the village from time to time, mending the inhabitants’ ironwares and speaking a dialect that they don’t understand. The villagers cannot comprehend a man who does not belong to a specific locale, and fear his apparently alien ways; but he is as devout a Christian as any of them (probably more so). Likewise, at one crucial point in the novel, Marion’s husband Peter is sent to replenish the village’s dwindling salt reserves from their lady’s brother, the lord of another village: he returns with a foodstuff that none of his neighbours have seen before:
‘It’s sweet,’ he said, ‘not like fruit, and not like honey but sweet. Is the whole jar full of them?’
‘Where do they come from?’ asked Dame Margaret, still holding out her hand with several on it.
‘Your brother had a big barrel of them – said they came from a traveller, from over the sea.’
Medieval Woman, p. 162.
Marion is also delighted to receive a woollen cloth, woven in a new manner, looser and with larger holes, that keeps her particularly warm, despite the protests of her doubtful husband.
Although the novel follows the village through the course of a year, there is relatively little said about the religious life of the village, beyond a single Mass in the first chapter, and a rather detached summary of the beliefs which Marion does not completely articulate even to herself. Saints’ days, and even Easter, go unmentioned altogether: as someone who studies religious practice, and would be grateful to learn something about the later Middle Ages for which there are presumably more records, I thought this something of an oversight. Aside from this, however, I greatly enjoyed this book. If you wish to spend a year in the Middle Ages, I recommend that you pay Marion and her neighbours a visit.
Ann Baer, Medieval Woman: Village Life in the Middle Ages (London: Michael O’Mara, 1996).